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Passive Voice Deployed in Mysterious Shooting Death of Handcuffed Man in Police Car

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A police officer in Prince George’s County, Maryland, shot and killed a man on Monday evening who was handcuffed and strapped into the passenger side of a police car.

Adding to the mystery of why a police officer might feel the need to shoot a handcuffed man is the vague manner in which the incident has been reported—a passive style of writing that would be comical if the outcome weren’t so serious.

The Associated Press opened its report of the shooting with this doozy of a sentence: “A man who had been handcuffed with his arms behind his back by police in Maryland was shot and killed inside an officer’s cruiser.”

When you put it like that, the shooter could have been anybody! The report further explains that the suspect (identified by CBS affiliate WUSA as William Green) had allegedly struck several vehicles while driving in Silver Hill. Witnesses called 911, and when the police responded they reportedly believed that Green was under the influence of drugs, possibly PCP.

Police cuffed Green, put him in the passenger seat of the police car, and strapped him in. An officer then got behind the wheel. It’s not entirely clear what happened next. Two witnesses said they heard or saw a struggle going on inside the car and then heard gunshots.

And then a whole lot of passive voice happened. Here’s how WTOP worded it: “The man was struck multiple times with the officer’s duty weapon.” WUSA reports, “Police said the suspect was struck several times by the officer’s duty weapon.” They didn’t even indicate that the guy was shot with bullets; they just went with what seems to be the police department’s own wording. By contrast, WUSA’s televised report flat out says that the police “shot and killed a suspect.”

We don’t yet know why the police officer shot the man. Body cameras are not yet mandatory for police in Prince George’s County, though activists have been pressuring for years to push the county council to make it happen. Instead, police are looking for surveillance video from nearby locations to see if anything else captures the shooting.

The American Civil Liberties Union chapter in Maryland has responded in a prepared statement with a call for police body cameras, noting other recent incidences of police violence involving the Prince George’s County Police Department that have not been recorded.

“It was only this past fall, in September 2019, that Leonard Shand, a black man also apparently in a disoriented state, was shot and killed by PGPD and officers from the Mt. Rainier and Hyattsville Police Departments,”said Deborah Jeon, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. “In that case, police claimed to have spent nearly 30 minutes containing Mr. Shand and using ‘less than lethal force,’ which is not the same thing as de-escalation. No mental health professional was called to the scene to peacefully de-escalate the situation. Again, officers from PGPD did not wear body cameras.

“And it was only this past October that a black man, Demonte Ward-Blake, was beaten by PGPD officers during a traffic stop and paralyzed from the waist down,” Shand continued. “Again, the officers from this encounter did not wear body cameras. It is unknown if the officers were held accountable for their actions.”

Perhaps the county should take a closer look at what’s going on with suspects once they’re loaded into police cars. Just last October, a former Prince George’s County police officer was convicted and sentenced to six months in jail for repeatedly punching a man in the face who was handcuffed and belted in the passenger’s seat of a police car. That seems awfully similar to what happened to Green, though at least the guy wasn’t shot—wait, I mean, he wasn’t “struck multiple times by the officer’s duty weapon.”

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